On the Necessity of Good Art

A little backstory to this post… Recently I was approached by an editor of my university’s school paper and asked if I would be interested in taking stead of the fine arts column, to which I agreed. I’m not 100% sure what I’m doing yet, but it’s been a blessing so far, and I am enjoying the task. (And yes, getting one’s first byline is an exciting feeling even if it’s just the school paper!) It also gives me an excuse to repost my columns here since I often get too busy to post very regularly. So why not. 🙂 Without further ado, here’s the first column I wrote a couple weeks back.


Of all mankind’s shared experiences, one of the simplest joys I have had the pleasure of knowing is that of receiving mail. The extraordinary return one can achieve, in the form of a friend’s happiness, on the effort of a brief missive makes it a miraculously fruitful endeavor. The suspense of the time it spends in transit, the surprise of not knowing the precise hour of the postman’s arrival – these only serve to heighten the impact and significance of that sacred art of letter writing.

Of course, at times what we await is not a letter but the spoils of online shopping. I am inclined to believe that, in their proper place, these too can be rightly received with a similar enthusiasm. Shortly after I arrived on campus this semester, for example, I received a parcel I had been expecting from a vendor across the country: an old vinyl recording of violinist Jascha Heifetz playing Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy.” I had sought out this performance after my mother came across it on YouTube several weeks ago.

The rise and fall of the melody, the vivid dialogue between the violin and orchestra, rang out from the living room like a prophet summoning the attention of Israel. The energy of the performance one might describe, in a platitude, as magical. In Christian terms, one might just as readily call it an echo of the divine.

The piercing effect of such transcendent instances of art is double-edged. On one hand, to have the heights of art depicted in such clarity can serve as a metaphorical shot in the arm for the amateur artist, a reminder of the eventual effects of practice and improvement. On the other, it is at times disheartening, as though we are convinced through some misplaced humility that we can never be “good” at our art, or reach whatever level of achievement we choose to define as “mastery.” It is an unfruitful comparison. The point is not that all art has a potential to be good, although this could be said. Rather, all art is good, merely because all art is real and unique and necessary.

We see this quite easily when we look at persons. Not everyone we meet will have the same sort of personality or the same list of accomplishments, the same hopes and fears or the same perspective on the world.

Yet we affirm each one of them as necessary and created in the image of God. One need not play like Jascha Heifetz for one’s habit of playing the violin to be a good thing; one need not paint like Caravaggio to bring joy to one’s friends and associates and image some aspect of the divine through art. Art does not exist on a spectrum of perfect skill to failure, and in some sense this spectrum is a mere construction. The art critic may require such a scale to evaluate the myriad examples of art they encounter. But our human experience of art is much deeper, much more natural and much less definable. To make art well and to practice good technique, that is something in which all artists should desire to grow. But to make art unlike any other, art which is as necessary and individual as they are, that is something which every artist already does.

The great C. S. Lewis describes friendship as the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .’” We should never underestimate the ability we have through art to touch those around us in a similar fashion. Yours may be precisely the voice someone in the same corner of the world as you has been waiting to hear.

 (© 2018)

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WP Review: 7 Best Tracks of 2015

2015 was a year of grand triumphs for some, and of bitter defeat for others.  Hip-hop saw the release of an incredibly acclaimed album, and the pop scene soared with the triumphant return of Adele.  At the same time, indie veterans like Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie released LP’s to disappointment from fans and critics alike.

But all is not lost, as a new cast of characters appears to be emerging from the wings.  Some have fully embraced the 21st century’s gradual shift toward a more intense, electronic sound.  Others have rebelled into a sort of folk revival, painting lush and intricate scenes with the sparest of instrumentation.  Either way, the face of music may look very different in a few years as these artists continue to grow and the stars of the 2000’s slowly wave goodbye.

We’re now halfway into this decade, and while some decry the music of this modern era, 2015 was home to a handful of standout tracks.  Here are some of the ones I most enjoyed, in the hopes that you will enjoy them too.

Continue reading “WP Review: 7 Best Tracks of 2015”

In Terra, Pax

“What ever happened to White Christmases?” is kind of a silly question where I live, because they never existed in the first place.  To be honest, I hold nothing against any of the people who enjoyed a nice 6-inch-think sheet of snow outside their houses as they sipped their hot cocoa and opened gifts this morning…  But even I think that a high of 70 is a bit ludicrous.  Evidently it’s just not in the town budget to afford snow on Christmas Day, which is understandable.  It’s definitely in high demand this time of year.  As long as we get a respectable amount in January and February, I’ll be happy.

So, it was fog and not snow through which the streetlamps shone in the streets of the town below as I stood in the church parking lot last night.  And it was strange.  But I was kind of okay with it.

Funny how the more you think about things, the more sense they seem to make.  Because as I drove slowly through the ethereally backlit clouds of mist on the way home, it occurred to me that what I found so enchanting about misty evenings is being limited in how far you can see.  When the edges of reality are hidden behind a sheet of monochrome, one imagines that anything could exist behind them.  You could be on a cloud, or somewhere in Europe.  Or in an uninhabited, vaguely magical carbon copy of your own hometown.

And it occurred to me that this visual handicap is an appropriate metaphor for Christmas.  When Christ the Lord was born in Bethlehem, two-thousand and sixteen years ago, give or take, how few people realized the implications of his coming.  For though He appeared but the average child of a poor / middle class young family, His coming was heralded by an army of heavenly splendor, and a fantastical star illumining the sky.  And at the edges of reality, shrouded by the mist, lay His future, His Passion, death, and Resurrection: the future of the whole human race.

That such awe-inspiring power and divinity came down to earth contained in human form is a mystery we will never entirely understand, though many have explicated its essence well.  It too hangs over our lives like a mist, and is equally as enchanting and mystifying…

Just some thoughts this Christmas Day.  Or night, that is.  I hope you, dear reader are enjoying your evening, and I wish you peace, and joy, and a very merry Christmas, and pray to God to bless you abundantly.

But what would Christmas be without the annual Window Philosopher Christmas Playlist?  (And there is still plenty of time to enjoy it, right?  Epiphany’s still a ways off.  🙂

God bless, and good night.  Christus est natus!  Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax, alleluia, alleluia!

Like Wine Pairing, but Not Really (Also, Hi Again)

Heyyo, peoples of the internet!  So… how’ve you been?  *sigh*  I hate being so busy.  I rather feel as though I’m neglecting you all.  But I’ve got a moment now, so I thought I would post something to cap off the evening.

An idea came to me the other day, you see (well, really two ideas).  The first is, since I am an avid listener of independent music, and, by His grace and blessing, a follower of Christ, to combine these two aspects into something interesting.  (Maybe.  Hopefully.)

The other idea is to post small pieces of Laudato Si, reflect on them, and open a space for discussion.  So that will be coming soon.  In the mean time… well, it’s probably easiest to just show you.

I thought I would take a look at what’s at number one on the Christian charts…

… and pair it with something indie.

Why?  Because I think these two songs offer some interesting contrast to one another.

Let me start off by saying I was pleasantly surprised by “Brother”.  Family and supporting one another are both awesome themes, and the song makes deft use of its genre.  I don’t understand why the Christian station near my house doesn’t play this kind of stuff.  I might listen to it regularly if it did.

Then we have “My Body Is a Cage”, a number vastly more subdued in tone that finds its crescendo two minutes in. Arcade Fire’s songwriting and ability to inspire emotion are not in full force here, but it’s still a fine song with some fantastical instrumentation, an anthem that in fact bears a lot of similarity to our first one.

The most obvious connection between the two lies in a single word: cage. Both songs speak of being locked inside a cage; Bear Rinehart has dropped the keys face down in the desert, while Win Butler maintains that the key is in his mind. They’re tied to each other by a desire to transcend the limits of this prison.

Still, a few things set these two songs apart from each other. The setting for “Brother” is a wilderness, while “My Body Is a Cage” takes place on an empty stage. Despite the implied barrenness of such a landscape, salvation is only as far away as the chorus for our first suffering hero, whose brother is by his side to help lift him up. And we all have someone like that, don’t we? It doesn’t matter how much of an introvert you might be. We need people; we need community. That’s part of what church is all about. You could go and worship God on your own terms, under a tree or somewhere cliché like that. But how would you know if you’d fallen? With whom would you share your moments of joy? After all, “Where two or three are gathered in My name”…

(I had to. I really did.)

Does salvation come at all in the second song? It ends almost like a cliffhanger… but I like to think so.

Though the two bands bear absolutely no relation to each other in real life, one could almost view “Brother” as a sequel to “My Body Is a Cage”. Butler cries out at the end of the song, “Set my spirit free!” He exists in a surprisingly Christian world, “living in an age that calls darkness light”, and like a puzzle piece, his last realization is that sometimes the key in your mind is not enough.

And then Rinehart appears walking out of the desert, reaches out his hand, and sings: “Brother, let me be your shelter”.

Jesus, Etc. (An Analysis)

One of the most interesting things about works of art is the people who experience them.  Our individual differences, subtle though they may be, result in countless interpretations of the same work of art.  How does one figure out which one is right?  Is there even a “right” interpretation of art?

I don’t know.  Even if I had more than a vague familiarity with aesthetic philosophy, I doubt I would; art just boggles the mind and slips free from every attempt to categorize or explain it.  But it is fascinating that two different listeners of the same song could take away two entirely different messages from it.

Sometimes the difference boils down to a single word.  Take, for example, the song “Jesus, Etc.” by Wilco:

Lovely little tune.  But it’s the first few words that got me thinking: “Jesus, don’t cry / You can rely on me, honey”.

Is the name of Jesus being used as an interjection, or is Jesus being addressed?  Let’s assume the former for a minute.  It’s the usage one would immediately suppose, this song coming from a secular artist.  In that case, the song is probably addressed to a lover experiencing some sort of grief.  Casting the song in a non-religious spotlight, some have gone so far as to interpret the line “Our love is all of God’s money / Everyone is a burning sun” as “effectively stripping God of his might while empowering us to recognize the value of our relationships while we can”. [1]

Things become much more interesting, even a tad uncomfortable,  if we assume that Jesus is the one being addressed in this song.  Who calls Jesus “honey”?  Seriously.  And yet, there is something to be said for this.  Shouldn’t we be that intimate with Jesus?

The aforementioned line about God’s money is also entirely redefined by reading it through the lens of religion:

 “Our love is all of God’s money,” Tweedy sings – meaning, of course, that the sum total of love in the world is what God’s got to work with. We set the limit on it – it can be as finite or infinite as we want it to be, depending on how loving we ourselves are. It is almost as though the song suggests that God’s strength is somehow the strength of human beings – that the two forces are one, and thus God has a strange sort of reliance on humans (for their redemptive work performed on His behalf), just as human beings need to rely on God, on the Love which represents Him.

-Sam Buntz | The Muted Trumpet  [2]

Buntz goes on to note the role reversal of the singer offering comfort to Jesus instead of vice versa.  Crying is a part of being human, and Jesus did weep just as we do (John 11:35).  But in this song, says Buntz, “Christ then appears as a figure standing in the midst of apocalypse, affected by the very catastrophes that are befalling creation: ‘Tall buildings shake / Voices escape / Singing sad, sad songs / Tuned to chords / Strung down your cheek / Bitter melodies / Turning your orbit around’”.

What we have then, are two separate conclusions.  By the end of the song, are we saved by the love within us apart from God, or is, as Buntz suggests, “the love that burns in human beings” Christ Himself?  Which did the songwriter intend?  Which is the valid interpretation?

In the end, there’s no way to answer that.  (The anti-intentionalist school of thought goes so far as to argue the author’s intention is totally irrelevant and should not be considered.)  And if we can’t even agree as to whether the songwriter’s take should matter to us individually, then perhaps finding an objective definition of an inherently subjective thing (art) is a wild goose chase.

Still, I think the song takes on a much deeper meaning when interpreted from a religious perspective.  Anyone else is quite entitled to their own opinion.  In fact, I encourage you to listen to it again.  I haven’t touched on all the lyrics, so think about them.  Draw your own conclusions.  (Is it implied that Jesus is smoking, for example?  What could that mean?)  And by all means, comment with your thoughts.  There are so many questions to be found in every single thing we encounter that one could easily get lost.  Still, discussion is the thing that keeps wisdom alive.

Just a little amateur philosophy for a Saturday night.  Next on the to do list: calling in an order for Chinese food.  Maybe in the next post we can talk about whether it’s okay to name a kind of chicken after a military officer despite it having no connection to him whatsoever…

Works Cited

1.  radiocures.   “Wilco – ‘Jesus, etc.’ Meaning”.  HubPages.  26 February 2010.  Online.

2.  Buntz, Sam.  “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: Desire’s Apocalypse”.  The Muted Trumpet.  18 November 2012.  Online.

In Review: May

Books

A Series of Unfortunate Events
Lemony Snicket | HarperCollins (1999-2006)
A-

Lemony Snicket’s uniquely quirky writing sets this series apart from most others.  Though its first half gets somewhat repetitive, the books’ short length and Snicket’s prose make the escalation of the plot from Book 8 onwards worth waiting for.  It even ventures to ask some Big Questions as the Baudelaire Orphans’ situation grows more desperate, such as the problem of ends justifying means, and it gradually becomes clear that the main antagonist’s motives are less cut-and-dried nefarious than was first imagined.  It definitely leaves one wanting to know more, about V.F.D., the Sugar Bowl, Beatrice, about everything.  Whether Snicket will provide any answers in the future remains to be seen…

Worth reading; Snicket writes like no one else, despite these books’ young target audience. Somewhere in between 3.5 and 4 stars out of 5.
stars35

Music

The Suburbsexcellence-music
Arcade Fire | Merge (2010)
A

The Suburbs does a very good job of capturing a complex emotion: that inexpressible nostalgia of growing up, of feeling restless to explore the world, yet longing for the simplicity of one’s childhood.  Perhaps its success in this is what led it (quite unexpectedly) to win Best Album at the Grammy’s in 2011.  Its 16 tracks carry this theme without growing dull for over an hour, stumbling but once or twice.  It may not be as incandescent as Arcade Fire’s debut, but it is an exceptionally paced record that rewards repeat listens.

The Canadians have done it again.  4 stars out of 5.
stars4